Gothic architecture, gargoyles, graveyards… From local chapels to imposing cathedrals, there’s no wonder that churches spark the dark side of the imagination.
Uncover spooky stories of dark magic and local legends that feature five of England’s most atmospheric churches.
1. Witchcraft and the Flower women at St Mary’s Church, Bottesford
The Witches of Belvoir is one of the most famous tales of English witchcraft. In the early 1600s, Joan Flower lived in Bottesford with her two daughters Philippa and Margaret, who worked as servants for the Earl of Rutland at Belvoir Castle.
Unpopular in their community and distrusted by the rest of the staff at Belvoir Castle, the sisters were dismissed for stealing. According to local legend, the Flower women swore revenge on the Earl and murdered his two sons and heirs to his Earldom with witchcraft.
The story is immortalised in Bottesford’s local church. The Earl’s tomb, which lies inside the building, commemorates the unusual death of the two boys, noting ‘both of which died in their infancy by wicked practices and sorcerye’. To this day, St Mary’s Church in Bottesford hosts the only known tomb in England to determine witchcraft as a cause of death.
2. The Spectre of Newby Church
Known as the Spectre of Newby Church, this eerie photograph might be one of the most famous instances of an alleged ghost caught on camera. This snap was captured at the Church of Christ the Consoler, a Grade I listed Victorian Gothic Revival built in the 1870s on the grounds of Newby Hall in North Yorkshire.
The photograph was taken in 1963 by Reverend Kenneth F. Lord, who claims he intended to capture the church’s altar. Upon developing the picture, he noticed the dark translucent shape on the right, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a phantom. Some have speculated that the figure could be a 16th-century monk, cloaked in black. Unnervingly, it has been suggested that the figure’s scale would make it 9 feet tall when compared to its surroundings.
3. The Devil beneath St Mary’s Church, Akenham
St Mary’s Church in the Suffolk hamlet of Akenham looks like any unassuming rural parish church that you’ll find dotted across the countryside. The Grade II* building dates back to the medieval period and has been redundant since the 70s.
But St Mary’s is home to something much more disturbing than its lion-head gargoyles and grotesque corbels. According to legend, the Devil himself sleeps below the church, under a broken tombstone known as the Devil’s grave.
It’s rumoured that if you were to walk around the church anticlockwise thirteen times, the Devil would be summoned from his stupor, but the consequences of doing so are unknown…
4. Hair-raising rituals at St Mary’s Church, Clophill
At the centre of the small village of Clophill in Bedfordshire sits the Church of St Mary’s. A Victorian chapel constructed over 1848 to 1849, the church was established to meet the needs of Clophill’s growing population.
But on the edge of village is the Old Parish Church, also known as the Church of St Mary. It’s thought to be one of Bedfordshire’s most haunted buildings.
The 14th-century chapel fell into disuse from 1848 when its roomier counterpart replaced it. Largely forgotten about, the Old Parish Church crumbled into ruins over the years but was thrown into the spotlight in the 1960s when evidence of satanic rituals was discovered on the grounds. The church walls were found to be marred with graffiti, and graves had been rummaged.
5. St Nicholas’ Church, Pluckley – England’s most haunted village
According to the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, Pluckley is the most haunted village in Britain. Apparently a hot spot for some chilling apparitions, it is said that there are twelve resident ghosts that haunt the area. This group of ghosts includes a phantom highwayman and a coach and horses.
In particular, St Nicholas’ Church is said to be haunted by two ghosts: the White Lady and the Red Lady. Legend says that the Red Lady was buried in the graveyard in the 12th century in a coffin made of lead. Her name denotes the single red rose that was placed in her hands.
Even with rumours of paranormal happenings, England’s churches provide examples of fascinating architecture and play a huge role in our historic landscape. Thanks to the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, hundreds of churches across the country have been supported with vital funding to protect these treasured buildings from the impact of Covid-19. Discover the churches that have been funded in your local area with our map of Culture Recovery Fund grants.